The first time I met Senator John McCain was over breakfast at the Halifax Security Conference. I was seated at a small table with a couple of his staff when the senator arrived and he came over to join us. After he took his seat I said something like “good to see you, senator” and he just glared at me, responding “Well, it’s not good to see you.” During the seemingly endless pause that followed I quietly contemplated the end of my short career as a congressional liaison, but just before I slid under the table, he smiled that sly smile of his, and followed up with “or any of these other staffers,” as he laughed and turned to order his coffee.
As I saw more of the senator in private meetings, hearings, and Vietnam Veterans get togethers over the next couple years I learned that this was classic John McCain. While he could be stubborn, difficult, irascible, and some would even say prickly, there was always, just under the surface, a wise crack, a big smile, and a laugh.
Several years later, the senator and I found ourselves in adjacent chairs at the Senate barber shop. I had just announced my first run for office and was stopping in for a haircut during a quick swing through Washington. McCain’s first response to the news I was running was a wise crack, but it was quickly followed by encouragement to stick to my principles and always do the right thing. This too was classic Senator McCain. A man who never backed away from a fight when he knew he was in the right, even when that fight was with his own party.
Like many, I’ve spent the time since his passing on Saturday reflecting on John McCain’s lifetime of service and what he has meant to our country. As I thought about the senator, I found myself drawn less to the personal anecdotes — though those are memories I will cherish for the rest of my life — and more to the last speech he gave on the Senate floor and the farewell note he left to the American people. During his last speech he sought to remind his fellow senators and indeed our nation that the only way to effectively govern us quarrelsome bunch known as Americans is through real deliberation and principled compromise. Senator McCain, unlike many, was always quick to point out that he had not always lived up to this ideal, but he never lost sight of this goal.
In his farewell to the American people, the senator revisited many of those same themes and I encourage all those who, like myself, are seeking public office this fall to take a few moments to read and reflect on his last message to us. I think our candidates for Congress in particular should stop and think about why it is they are running for office and what it is they hope to do should they join the 116th Congress next year. Will they join in what Senator McCain described as the weakening of our greatness, by “confusing patriotism with tribal rivalries?” Or will they endeavor to serve all their constituents, remembering that “we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement” and give their colleagues across the aisle and their friends and neighbors across the district “the benefit of the presumption that [they] all love our country?”
We have indeed lost a giant, and Senator McCain will rightly take his place in the pantheon of soldiers, sailors, and statesmen who have built and preserved this magnificent nation. But, I will not invoke Shakespeare’s immortal words about not looking on his like again because I know John McCain wouldn’t agree. He would not agree because he knew the magic of America is that every succeeding generation produces men and women who will dedicate their lives, as he did, to preserving, protecting, and defending this nation. While they may not do it in the same maverick way he did, they will step forward to ensure that this last best hope of freedom endures.
So, let us take heart in Senator McCain’s final words to us and get on with the business of the nation as he would want us to do. “Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
— Town of Washington resident Joe Whited is a Navy combat veteran and former congressional staffer who works as a consultant for the Department of Defense.